Pac 12

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#31 Utah Utes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#31

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, 85-43 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Aaron Roderick, Jim Harding | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Pease

Utah should be feeling pretty good for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best season as Pac-12 member, winning nine games for the first time since 2010 and finishing with a winning conference record for the first time since moving over from the Mountain West. Yet Utah has reason for concern as defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen both left in arguably lateral moves. The defense is the question for the short term, but the long term question is if Utah will be able to continue the momentum that began in 2014.

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Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2015 
 

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson’s career was in question after the 2013 season due to an intracranial condition, but he was cleared to play and earned the starting job in 2014. Wilson’s up-and-down performance led to Kendal Thompson replacing him as the starter twice during the season, before Thompson’s knee injury enabled Wilson to regain the position through the Utes’ Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State. 

Wilson succeeded in cutting down his interceptions from 16 as a sophomore to five as a junior, but he never seemed comfortable with former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who’s now Texas A&M’s offensive line coach. Aaron Roderick, promoted as Utah’s co-offensive coordinator, wants Wilson to complete a higher percentage of passes. “We’re not trying to reinvent what we were doing. We just want to get better at it,” Roderick says.

Running back Devontae Booker was a big discovery for the Utes in 2014 as a junior college transfer. Once he established himself as the featured back, he became a consistent force in the Pac-12, averaging 130.1 yards in conference games. Booker is a tough inside runner with explosive speed, and his 1,512-yard total fell just short of the school’s single-season record. 

Utah will rely heavily on senior receiver Kenneth Scott, who led the team with 48 catches and four touchdowns, including a game-winning reception in overtime at Stanford. 

The Utes took a hit when tackle Jeremiah Poutasi entered the NFL Draft as a junior, but they return the bulk of a line that improved in position coach Jim Harding’s first season and paved the way for Booker’s big year. Left guard Isaac Asiata and center Siaosi Aiono are returning starters who played consistently.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2015
 

Utah must replace end Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks. John Pease, the Utes’ new defensive coordinator, hopes that end Hunter Dimick will at least match his 10 sacks from last year, even though he will receive more attention now. 

Utah’s linebackers were hit with injuries last season, but the coaches pieced things together well enough for the Utes to rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game.  Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player, capable of covering receivers and making big hits in the running game. Norris made a team-high 116 tackles, including 13 for a loss. 

The cornerback position is a concern for Pease after Dominique Hatfield was dismissed in July. Converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2015
 

Utah wants to move the ball and score touchdowns, but punting and kicking field goals are the team’s biggest strengths. Australian punter Tom Hackett averaged 46.7 yards, and 36 of his 80 punts went inside the 20-yard line. Andy Phillips missed a field goal in an overtime loss at Arizona State, but he was otherwise dependable, finishing 23-of-28 for the season, including 12-of-15 from 40 yards or longer.

Final Analysis 
 

Utah is getting closer. In their fourth season of Pac-12 membership, the Utes posted their first winning record (5–4) in conference play and competed favorably against nearly every opponent.  Coach Kyle Whittingham likes the program’s trajectory entering its fifth season in the Pac-12. “We’ve taken a step forward every year with our depth and talent on the roster, one through 85,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress … but we feel like last year we made a lot of headway.”

In 2015, the Utes hope to overcome a lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary while counting on their senior quarterback to play more consistently as he completes an adventurous career.

The Debate

Is Devontae Booker the Pac-12's Best Running Back?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#6 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#6

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

High expectations are back at USC, as the Trojans return 14 starters from last year’s 9-4 team. Quarterback Cody Kessler headlines an offense that averaged 35.8 points per game in 2014. Kessler is surrounded by one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines and receiving corps. Scoring points won’t be an issue for second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but the defense must replace standout end Leonard Williams and needs to show improvement after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2014.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing USC’s Offense for 2015 


This could be one of the more explosive offenses in the country. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns from one of the better under-the-radar seasons in recent memory. All he did as a junior was complete 69.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions. With the gifted Nelson Agholor gone, Kessler’s new go-to receiver will be JuJu Smith, who was a Freshman All-American a year ago. Then there is Steven Mitchell, the shifty new slot receiver who might have been the MVP of spring practice, as well as Adoree’ Jackson, another Freshman All-American who might be the most exciting two-way player in America. A full-time starter at cornerback, Jackson also will be utilized more as a pass catcher, especially after his breakout game against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

The Trojans will miss Javorius “Buck” Allen and his 1,489 yards rushing at tailback, but they hope to feature Justin Davis, a slashing, breakaway type, and Tre Madden, who likes to rumble between the tackles, as a new complementary pair. Highly regarded freshman Ronald Jones should also work into the mix, along with Soma Vainuku, an intimidating 270-pound fullback who could be the short yardage answer.

The offensive line might be the deepest and strongest unit on the team. Max Tuerk is an All-Pac-12 center. He will be flanked by a pair of Freshman All-Americans in Viane Talamaivao at guard and Toa Lobendahn at tackle. Guard Damien Mama and tackle Zach Banner, a couple of beefy, 350-plus pounders, round out a group that is as active as it is physical.

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

You can’t lose the best defensive end in the country and a captain and spiritual leader at linebacker and not feel it. All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard will be difficult to replace, especially for a team that often struggled late in games. But the Trojans are not without their share of talent on defense. The new all-star candidate is Su’a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions (three) and tackles for a loss (17.0) last year as an All-Pac-12 hybrid outside linebacker/safety.

Up front, senior Antwaun Woods will try to set the tone at nose tackle. Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix, more of an OLB/end hybrid, round out a solid, if unspectacular, group.

The linebackers joining Cravens will be Lamar Dawson, probably USC’s most improved player this spring, and the always aggressive Anthony Sarao.

The secondary is led by the aforementioned Jackson, who is among the country’s finest cover cornerbacks. Kevon Seymour, coming off a fine spring, will start at the other corner. The starting safeties are likely to be the improving John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay III, although true freshman Iman Marshall should quickly work his way into the rotation.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128 

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2015


Solid senior Kris Albarado is in his third year as USC’s punter. But there is a vacancy at placekicker, where newcomers Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood will battle for the job in fall practice. Boermeester will enter with a small advantage.

Final Analysis 


Coming off a 9–4 season that left most Trojans boosters feeling mildly disappointed, coach Steve Sarkisian will face the pressure of huge expectations this fall. The offense should score plenty of points. But it is the defense — which was mauled by the likes of Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA a year ago — that must show significant improvement, and that won’t be easy without the departed Williams and Pullard. With Kessler, Smith, Jackson and Co., spectacular plays should be plentiful. But in the end, this team will go only as far as the defense takes it.

The Debate

Is Cody Kessler the Best Quarterback in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#8 Oregon Ducks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Helfrich, 24-4 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scott Frost | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Pellum

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has guided the Ducks to 24 wins over the last two seasons and a No. 2 finish after last year’s defeat to Ohio State in the national championship game. Helfrich has Oregon poised to win the Pac-12 North once again, but it won’t be easy replacing standout quarterback Marcus Mariota. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is expected to win the job, and the senior will be surrounded by a deep group of skill players.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Oregon’s Offense for 2015 


Oregon enters a new era after the loss of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, who led the FBS with a passer rating of 181.75 and averaged 9.01 yards per play of total offense. To replace him, the Ducks signed fifth-year transfer Vernon Adams — who led the FCS with a passing rating of 183.13 and averaged 9.0 yards per play of total offense. Adams wasn’t on hand for spring drills, however, giving a big head start to his primary challenger, returning junior Jeff Lockie. The bulk of Lockie’s experience came in mop-up duty the last two years. Coaches have expressed confidence in Lockie’s experience and decision-making, but Adams is far more proven as a playmaker.

As usual, there’s an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. Running back Royce Freeman is drawing Heisman buzz, after teaming with junior Thomas Tyner to rush for nearly 2,000 yards last season. The receiving corps, led by Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford, welcomes Bralon Addison back into the fold after a knee injury. But sophomores Devon Allen (ACL surgery) and Darren Carrington (suspension) are question marks entering the fall, as is tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a knee injury.

The offensive line needs to replace four-year starting center Hroniss Grasu; one candidate is former walk-on Matt Pierson, pressed into action last season and now considered a dependable veteran.

Previewing Oregon’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Ducks got a big boost when defensive end DeForest Buckner opted to return for his senior season. He was easily the most disruptive player in the front seven last season, even more so than Arik Armstead, who left early for the NFL.

The linebackers hope to make this year’s defense more well- rounded up front. Senior inside backer Rodney Hardrick and Joe Walker need to find their way into the backfield more often, and outside backers Tyson Coleman and Christian French want to boost their sack totals. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum was criticized at times in 2014 for rushing as few as three players, and the Ducks intend to be more aggressive in 2015.

That said, they may have to protect a secondary that’s young at the cornerback spots. Sophomore Chris Seisay replaced the injured Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the postseason last year and held up well, but he’s far from a proven commodity. Sophomore Arrion Springs, true freshman Ugo Amadi and converted receiver Charles Nelson also will compete for time at corner, supported by two solid safeties in Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Oregon’s Specialists for 2015 


The good news: Oregon returns both specialists, kicker Aidan Schneider and punter Ian Wheeler. The bad news: Both joined the Ducks as walk-ons and beat out scholarship players for reps. Schneider was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman, making 11-of-12 attempts, but Wheeler battled inconsistency. The return game will be bolstered by the return of Addison, who averaged 14.1 yards per punt return in 2013. All of last season’s top kick returners are back.

Final Analysis 


“It’s a new day in Oregon football,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost acknowledged during the first week of spring practice. The upcoming season will be one of major transition after the graduation of a group of seniors who led the program to four postseason victories, two in the Rose Bowl. In 2014, the Ducks debuted a number of future stars in the freshman class: Freeman, Allen, Carrington, offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby and defensive backs Seisay, Nelson and Robinson. How quickly they can reach their potential — and what kind of quarterback play the Ducks get from a couple of intriguing candidates — could determine whether Oregon’s run of success continues to 2015, or if this fall merely serves as a bridge to 2016. 

The Debate

Is Royce Freeman the Best Running Back in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#13 Arizona State Sun Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#13

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Todd Graham, 28-12 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Norvell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Graham, Keith Patterson

Arizona State has won 20 games over the last two seasons and has finished as a top 25 team in back-to-back years under coach Todd Graham. And even with a few losses on both sides of the ball, the Sun Devils should be in contention for the Pac-12 South title once again in 2015. Quarterback Mike Bercovici should have a breakout year in his first as the starter, while the defense will be an aggressive group with seven returning starters.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Arizona State’s Offense for 2015 


Usually, when a team replaces a three-year starter at quarterback, there’s going to be a drop-off. But that’s not the case at ASU. In three relief starts last year, Mike Bercovici proved he could be an elite quarterback; he has a strong arm and shows great leadership. He’s not as mobile as predecessor Taylor Kelly, so the Sun Devils will tweak their offense to suit his skills.

ASU will lean more on its running game, and it has the horses to do so, with three backs — Demario Richard, two-way player Kalen Ballage and speedster Gump Hayes — capable of doing damage. Going to the ground first also makes sense, because the two big question marks on offense most affect the passing game. ASU has to replace both of its starting tackles, and the wide receiver position has been decimated with Jaelen Strong going to the NFL and Cameron Smith sidelined the entire season after knee surgery. D.J. Foster, now a full-time slot receiver after splitting time between tailback/receiver the last three seasons, will be Bercovici’s No. 1 target. The Sun Devils picked up a late addition in the spring in UCLA transfer Devin Lucien, which gives Bercovici another proven target.

Previewing Arizona State’s Defense for 2015 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

ASU lost a couple of key players in defensive lineman Marcus Hardison and safety Damarious Randall, but coach Todd Graham has recruited so well that replacements should be able to step right in.

The strength of the defense is the back seven. ASU can rotate five linebackers without much drop-off. Keep an eye on sophomores Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun; they were pressing for starting positions in spring ball and have the sideline-to-sideline quickness Graham loves at the position.

ASU returns three starters in the secondary, and James Johnson will help negate the loss of Randall.

If there’s a concern, it’s the lack of a true pass rusher up front. Four-star junior college recruit Davon Durant was plugged in to be the Devil-backer — primarily a pass-rusher in ASU’s scheme — but he was suspended indefinitely following an arrest on allegations of domestic abuse.

Graham won’t back off despite the lack of an elite pass-rushing threat. Instead, he’ll dial up a variety of blitzes to try to keep quarterbacks guessing. It’s a dangerous gambit — Oregon State had three touchdowns of at least 35 yards in its 35–27 victory over the Devils last year — but Graham will remain aggressive. It’s who he is and how he coaches.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists for 2015 


The kicking game will be solid with punter Matt Haack and placekicker Zane Gonzalez, but the mission for new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is to improve the return game, which has been a disaster for ASU. The answer might be Hayes, who terrorized the defense in practices leading up to last year’s Sun Bowl. Hayes has the speed and natural running instincts to be a threat every time he touches the ball.

Final Analysis


In three seasons Graham has turned an underachieving program into one that regularly cranks out 10-win seasons. This year should be no different. ASU returns 12 starters, and that number doesn’t include Bercovici. There are some worries — most notably at wide receiver and offensive tackle — but the Sun Devils have the talent and the coaching to contend for the Pac-12 title.

The schedule is daunting, particularly early in the season. ASU opens against Texas A&M in Houston, and three of its first four conference games are USC, at UCLA and at Utah. But if the Sun Devils can somehow come out of that stretch with just one conference loss, they will be in great shape to win the Pac-12 South. Three of their final five games are at home, and the only road contests are against California and Washington State.

The Debate

Where Does Mike Bercovici Rank Among Pac-12 Quarterbacks?

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